This weeks blog has been written by Luke Woolgar, one of Myokinetics Therapists and a Functional Rehabilitation Specialist who has spent a good portion of his adult life bodybuilding. Luke was born with sacral agenesis, a congenital issue that occurs when the lowest part of the spine (the sacrum) does not form properly. He now wishes to issue a warning to all his fellow lifters, recreational gym goers and athletes of every stripe who think that training abs equated to training core. It doesn’t. Read on to find out why.
Core training means abs and obliques right? Wrong. I first came to Myokinetics as a result of lower back and hip problems. I lifted weights and I lifted heavy. There was nothing you could tell me about the body and how it works that I did not already know. Training once and sometimes twice a day in heroic battles pitting myself against the iron I forced my body to grow and to adapt to the ever increasing stimulus of weigh that I put through it.
Until I wasn’t. It started with a niggle in my hip that wouldn’t go away, and without boring the reader overly with the details, it ended with my undergoing spinal surgery to decompress the nerves in my lumbar spine. I have recovered since the operation and regained much of the size and strength that I lost, but the journey, both before, during and after surgery has quite clearly demonstrated one thing to me: the cast iron core that I thought I had was a sham. It did not exist. It was all show and no go. This revelation was a shock to me and I guarantee that the majority of those reading this now are in exactly the same boat. If you are not a gymnast or an experienced climber - your core is not strong enough. And training ‘abs’ is not good enough to make it so. In order to understand why this is so, it may help to look at what different groups consider the core to be.
Let's compare and contrast the general perspectives of physiotherapists, bodybuilders, personal trainers, and Instagram influencers on the role and function of the core in human anatomy, the muscles involved, and the best ways to train and develop it:
Role and Function: Physiotherapists emphasize the core's role in providing stability and support for the spine and pelvis. They often focus on preventing and rehabilitating injuries, addressing issues like lower back pain and postural imbalances.
Muscles Involved: Physiotherapists typically consider deep core muscles such as the transverse abdominis, multifidus, and pelvic floor muscles as crucial for stability.
Training Approach: Core training for physiotherapists involves functional exercises that promote proper movement patterns, posture, and overall stability. They may incorporate therapeutic exercises to address specific weaknesses or imbalances.
Role and Function: Bodybuilders see the core as a key aesthetic component and focus on developing visible abdominal muscles for a well-defined midsection.
Muscles Involved: Bodybuilders often target the rectus abdominis, obliques, and sometimes the erector spinae for a sculpted and visually appealing core.
Training Approach: Bodybuilders typically include isolation exercises like crunches, leg raises, and oblique twists, along with compound movements such as squats and deadlifts to engage the core while building overall muscle mass.
Role and Function: Personal trainers generally approach the core as a foundation for functional movement, emphasizing its importance in daily activities and sports.
Muscles Involved: They recognize the importance of both superficial and deep core muscles for overall stability and performance.
Training Approach: Personal trainers often incorporate a mix of functional movements, stability exercises, and compound lifts. They focus on developing core strength that translates to improved performance in various activities.
Role and Function: Instagram influencers may often highlight the aesthetic aspect of the core, promoting a visually appealing physique.
Muscles Involved: Similar to bodybuilders, influencers may emphasize the development of the rectus abdominis and obliques for a toned and attractive appearance.
Training Approach: Influencers may showcase trendy or visually engaging core workouts, sometimes focusing more on high-intensity exercises for a quick burn and promoting fitness trends rather than a comprehensive approach to core strength.
In summary, while there may be some overlap in perspectives, each group prioritizes different aspects of the core based on their goals and expertise. Physiotherapists focus on rehabilitation and injury prevention, bodybuilders emphasize aesthetics, personal trainers prioritize functional strength, and Instagram influencers often showcase visually appealing workouts for popularity.
So how does this contribute to training core incorrectly? Well to begin with, as most athletes are not also physiotherapists or (highly trained) personal trainers they are very likely to be unaware of their individual core weaknesses and imbalances as they relate to functional movement.
Many, if not all, athletes and gym goers will have one or more foundational weaknesses in their core. This will lead to improper movement patterns, poor posture (we’re looking at you anterior pelvic tilt!), and limited stability. This is a consequence of modern life and it’s highly sedentary or repetitive nature (think or roofers or tilers on their knees repeatedly laying slates or tiles for 8 hours a day). Some of the deep core muscles get highly activated (strong) in a specific often repeated range of motion and much less activated (weak) in other less repeated ranges of motion.
Ever heard of a dude who could deadlift 200kg, squat 170kg but who slipped a disc bending down to tie his shoe lace? This is often a classic case of poor core strength (combined with poor mobility). No matter how many 1000’s of crunches and Roman chair twists he could do.
At heart a strong core is one that provides stability to the pelvis and the spine – if you are not training for stability then you are not training your core. Stability in the first instance is trained with static, time under tension.
A further example might illustrate this issue. Let’s consider a typical exercise that each of the groups above may pick for the development of their core and see where that leads!
Exercise: Plank (and plank variations) with Pelvic Tilt
Rationale: This exercise emphasizes maintaining a neutral spine and activating deep core muscles. Physiotherapists often focus on promoting proper alignment and stability, making the plank with a pelvic tilt a suitable choice.
Exercise: Cable Crunch
Rationale: Cable crunches specifically target the rectus abdominis, allowing bodybuilders to isolate and develop the visible "six-pack" muscles. This exercise is commonly included in bodybuilding routines to enhance abdominal aesthetics.
Rationale: The deadlift is a compound movement that engages multiple muscle groups, including the core. Personal trainers often advocate for exercises like deadlifts that promote functional strength and integrate core stability into a broader range of movements.
Exercise: Medicine Ball Slams
Rationale: Medicine ball slams are a dynamic and visually appealing exercise often showcased on social media. They involve explosive movements and can be easily incorporated into attention-grabbing workout videos, aligning with the trend-focused approach of Instagram influencers.
It's important to note that these exercises are representative choices and may not exclusively belong to one group. Our selection is based on the typical priorities and preferences associated with each category. Additionally, individual preferences and variations exist within each group, and professionals may incorporate a mix of exercises based on their clients' needs and goals.
NOTE WELL: the physio’s choose a static hold – all other groups choose a movement for reps
Without having developed (and maximised) the ability of the body to maintain stability in the spine and pelvis with proper alignment (as per plank variations), one is likely to perform exercises like cable crunches, deadlifts or medicine ball slams with chronically over-active hip flexors. These may be so active that they are performing most of the work to stabilise the spine. This then can lead to aggravation of anterior pelvic tilt and the development of chronically over-active spinal erectors. This leads to back pumps, aches and low back pain. Lovely.
Modern life encourages our bodies to sit, this half squat position replicates the effect of over-active hip flexors, lumbar spinal erectors and anterior pelvic tilt. In effect more of what many believe is ‘core’ work.
Want 6 pack abs without injury? Do static holds for a strong core
If you want to develop a strong core, with the abs and the aesthetics to boot, and if you wish to do so while limiting your risk of injury, then we would suggest that your workout should focus on static holds for time in perfect alignment. The plank is of course the easiest of these to implement, however greater challenge is possible by adding exercises from the world of calisthenics.
Some of the plank’s greatest expressions are the planche (pictured above), dragon flag, front and back levers and the flag pole hold (for the side of the body). Working with regressions and progressions towards these goals will guarantee the development of a strong core. Once you have started to move on to harder variants of the plank and side plank, then, and only then should one begin to add moving exercises like cable crunches, medicine ball slams, toes to bar and so on.
So if you want to develop a strong and resilient core, learn to love static holds first. Don’t stop at the plank, try to master the dragon flag, or one of the levers. There are plenty of YouTube guides that will provide regressions, progressions and sample workouts for your journey. Work within your limits, then push your limits and discover the hidden strength within you, your 6 pack abs will be a handy bonus. Unsure where to start? Check out GMB Fitness online here or book a coaching session with one of the Myokinetics team here if you happen to live in / or around Chester UK.
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